This month Words & Pictures editor, Julie Sullivan, takes a look at translation into British Sign Language (BSL)

A few years ago I went to a translation conference and was blown away to see someone perform a beautiful poem that was created by Gary Quinn in British sign language (BSL), about Gerry Hughes, the first deaf person to sail around the world alone. The English and Shetlandic translations are by Christine De Luca. You can see it here: 

                                                       The Stars Are the Map I Unfurl

Gary Quinn performing his poem about Gerry Hughes in BSL


It was so beautiful, and like nothing I had ever seen before. Using movements and gestures as language was a fantastically different a way of telling a story. I was ashamed to admit that, although I have a cousin who was born deaf, and therefore learned some American Sign Language (ASL) when she was a child, I had really known nothing about sign language or how diverse and poetic it can be.

Did you know that sign languages are complete languages, with native speakers, and have their own vocabulary, and a different grammar from the languages spoken around them? Did you know that there are about 300 different sign languages around the world? Indigenous peoples of the American West spoke to each other in a common sign language. In other places, small communities of deaf people taught each other their signs. Literature, in sign language, is stories told with your hands and body.

Once you begin to learn about them, the world of sign languages draws you in. There is always more to be learned, as with any language. The idea that you can speak eloquently without using your voice, communicating silently, is enthralling. 


British and American people speaking their own dialects rarely have trouble understanding each other's language—but did you know that American Sign Language and British Sign Language are not mutually intelligible? In the early 1900s, an American minister, Thomas Gallaudet, travelled to Europe to learn about education for the deaf. The most advanced British institution refused to teach him their method, so he went on to France, where he learned French Sign Language and brought it back to the U.S.A. In his school, the French Sign Language was taught and integrated with children's own signs.

Gallaudet's school was successful and attracted not only deaf students but many educators, who gradually spread ASL around the world. Since sign languages are not actually based on sounds, people who speak other languages than English can use them easily. In this way, ASL and French Sign Language are used across the world in places like West Africa, Southeast Asia (where Malaysian ASL has become a different language), and Puerto Rico. 

Thomas Gallaudet teaching deaf children 


British Sign Language (BSL) shares less than a third of its signs with ASL. Like spoken English, it has dialects that vary, so that a Scottish signer will use slightly different signs from one in Wales or England. BSL and its descendants are used in Australia and New Zealand. Here is a short introduction to BSL.

Children using BSL

As with spoken languages, there are native and non-native speakers of the different sign languages, and the natives are usually far more fluid. Sign languages are not limited to words; deaf people who sign have their own vibrant culture, and create stories and poems in sign that must be translated into English or other languages. There is beginning to be a deaf literature by deaf people for deaf people. It feels as if there is a flowering of creativity in this field. 

Recently, we have seen an increase in signing at conferences (including SCBWI conferences) and on television. A sign-language interpreter has to translate our spoken language into the physical language of signs in real time—not an easy task.

Like other children, deaf children need stories. Of course, they learn to read in the standard language of the place where they live, but they also enjoy signed stories. Online, you can find many stories in sign language for them (and for the growing number of hearing students who are learning sign languages). There is a free app for iOS called Signed Stories that has cartoon stories with BSL translation. You can also get stories written directly in BSL.

The alphabet is only a small part of any sign language, used to convey new words, names or unfamiliar concepts.

Here are a few signed stories. The BSL interpreters are a talented bunch!

Picture credits

Translation feature logo by Jess Stockham

"The Stars Are the Map I Unfurl," screenshot of video posted by the Scottish Poetry Library. Video made with the Scottish Poetry Library’s artist in residence, Kyra Pollitt, with funding from Creative Scotland, and with thanks to Gerry Hughes and Interface 3.

Blue and red hands from Wikimedia Commons

Cover of Sign Language Among North American Indians, by Garrick Mallery

Photo by Nick Allen, of stained-glass window from Wikimedia Commons. The window, by G. Owen Bonawit, depicts Thomas Gallaudet teaching deaf children. Slavic Reading Room, Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University, USA

Photo of children signing by daveynin from Wikimedia Commons

BSL alphabet by Coloringbuddymike from Wikipedia


Julie Sullivan is a translator and SCBWI volunteer. 

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